Updated: Apr 10
Yes, Easter is just around the corner and for many people at this time of year, chocolate is king! But for me Easter is about hot cross buns. Don’t get me wrong, I love a chocolate egg or two and enjoy some of the other seasonal delights, including the sweet, caramelised almond chew of Simnel cake, but a toasted and generously buttered hot cross bun sits right at the top.
It was my English grandparents that introduced me to the concept of ‘High Tea’, a meal that I think is perfectly suited to Easter festivities. Not to replace the roast lamb on Easter Sunday that rewards you after a long, cold, egg hunt, but as a lovely, casual and low stress way for the whole family to ‘break bread’ and enjoy a meal together over the holiday. I don’t know if it’s common practice or not, but we’d always start things off with a couple of soft-boiled eggs accompanied by toast soldiers for dipping. That was followed by a smorgasbord of crumpets, scones and toasted tea cakes. It’s the tea cakes that tie this so neatly to Easter for me, as when they are inscribed with their symbolic cross, they become the hot cross buns we all love to eat at this time of year. I didn’t realise that the symbolism went even further, with the bread representing the body of Christ, as per the Eucharist and the spices representing the spices Jesus was embalmed with at the tomb.
However, it’s not just the symbolism of hot cross buns that makes high tea feel like the perfect match for this spring festival, it’s the ritual and theatre I remember that went along with it. The good china would come out, along with the heirloom toast rack, tea strainer and silver, bone handle butter knives (this would be their sole yearly outing as their lack of dishwasher friendliness precluded them from making more regular appearances!)
The tea pot would don its cosy and even the soft-boiled eggs would come to the table in their own miniature cosies. There was ‘sacrifice’ when the eggs had their tops removed with the always fascinating, steel toothed egg topper and ‘resurrection’ when we’d flip the empty shells over in their egg cups, hiding the evidence that they’d already been eaten, exclaiming ‘I haven’t even started mine yet!’. All together there was a wonderfully convivial and relaxed atmosphere. Everyone around the table was chatting, laughing, interacting and eating; three generations brought together by the comforting simplicity of high tea. The only thing to worry about was not over cooking the eggs and keeping that golden yolk viscous and dippable…oh, and not burning the toast! Avoid these pitfalls though and serve up your own home-made sourdough hot cross buns and hopefully you will have as fond memories of high teas and Easter as I do.
40g Strong White Bread Flour
20g Rye or Wholemeal Flour
100g Leaven (maintain the remaining amount as your starter for next time)
200g Strong White Bread Flour
200g Kamut or Wholemeal Flour
100g Plain White Flour
200g Whole Milk
50g Butter (very soft)
1 Free Range Egg
Zest of an Orange
½ tsp Ground Nutmeg
½ tsp Ground Ginger
1 tsp Ground Cinnamon
Flour/Rice Flour for dusting
For the cross:
50g Plain White Flour
For the glaze:
1 tbsp Marmalade
1tsp Boiling Water
Build your leaven so it is at its peak when you come to use it, this is usually 6 to 8 hours in advance.
In a glass jar mix together your starter, flours and water. Use a silicone spatula to thoroughly combine the ingredients, then clean down the sides of the jar so you can see the level of the mixture inside and cover.
Leave this at room temperature (6-10 hours).
After this time it should have at least doubled in size or preferably tripled.
Mix your dough
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the leaven, flours, milk, water and sugar. Using the dough hook attachment, mix the ingredients for three minutes until well combined.
Cover with a tea towel and leave to proof at room temperature for about one hour.
Add all the remaining ingredients (including the salt), bar the sultanas, and mix for a further three to five minutes. When you first switch on the mixer the dough ball will slide around the bottom of the bowl due to the egg lubricating the sides, but after a minute or two the egg should incorporate into the dough causing it to become sticky. Now the dough will really begin to mix, so continue for a couple of minutes from this point. You want all the ingredients to be thoroughly mixed in and for the dough to be well homogenised, smooth and coming away from the sides of the bowl.
Finally add the sultanas and mix on a low speed for around 1 minute or until they are evenly dispersed throughout the dough.
Scrape any dough from the dough hook and clean down the sides of the bowl with a dough scraper, then cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave to bulk proof at room temperature for four to five hours. You want to see some signs of fermentation and rise, but don’t wait for excessive amounts of gas to build up in the dough, as this will get pushed out during the shaping.
Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and then, using a bench scraper, divide into 12 equal pieces of approximately 90g each.
Working with one piece of dough at a time, locate a smooth flat side and lay that down on your work surface. This side will eventually become the top of the bun once you have shaped it.
Using the thumb of your left hand to hold the dough still, use your right hand to gently pinch and stretch each side up and over it into the middle. Repeat the process a few times, turning the dough as you go to create a taut ball, then flip it over so the seams are underneath. Using the heel of your palm, gently push the dough down and forwards, whilst simultaneously moving your hand in a circular motion. Use your little finger and thumb to help rotate the dough ball and tuck the edges in underneath, to create a taut, round ball. It’s worth taking some time to master this technique, as it’ll produce very nicely shaped and uniform buns/rolls. Repeat with the remaining pieces.
Arrange the dough balls on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment, leaving a gap of approximately 1cm between them on all sides. They will proof into each other for you to tear apart after baking. Cover with a tea towel and leave to proof at room temperature for two to four hours. I have yet to over proof a batch of these, so my advice would be to proof longer rather than shorter to ensure a nice, light texture.
Pre-heat your oven to 230c (450f). If you are baking these for Easter and want to put the crosses on, now is the time to do it. Mix the flour and water in a bowl to create a thick batter, then transfer to a piping bag (or freezer bag) and cut off the corner to create a 5mm nozzle. Pipe a long line of the batter across each horizontal row of buns, from one side of the tray to the other. Then repeat the process on the verticals to create a grid of crosses on the buns.
I like to bake my buns covered with a second baking tray or grill pan, as I did for the Ciabatta, to create a steamy environment that encourages good oven spring. So with the buns covered, bake for 15 minutes, then remove the cover, turn the oven down to 200c (390f) and continue to cook for a further 10 minutes. You want to get some good colour on the crust so there is clear contrast between the bun and the cross, if they are looking a bit pale, turn the heat up a little and give them a couple more minutes. If you don’t have a pan to cover your baking tray, then simply set the oven to 200c (390f) and bake for 20 minutes. Preheat a roasting tin in the bottom of the oven and pour a cup of water into it when you put the buns in, to help generate steam.
Whilst the buns are cooking, mix the marmalade with the boiling water to loosen it. Once the buns are cooked, remove them from the oven and brush them generously with the glaze mixture. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.